Toni Morrison Documentary and the Prevalence of the “White Gaze”

The highly anticipated documentary about the life and literature of Toni Morrison titled The Pieces I Am was recently released. The film’s opening features the celebrated author in a photo collage, piecing together portraits from her childhood to the present. It captures the multi-dimensional icon as “a reader, teacher, editor, thinker, and writer of books.” It also centralizes Morrison as she narrates the film with commentaries from Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Paula Giddings, Oprah Winfrey, Walter Mosley, Robert Gottlieb, and others.Morrison gets the first and last word in the film, which opens with her telling the story of her grandfather constantly bragging about having read the entire Bible — when it was illegal in the South for Blacks to read. “Ultimately I knew that words had power,” she states. The film concludes with Morrison’s reflections on the experience of Black Americans as one of triumph, rather than defeat.

“But for me the history of the place of black people in this country is so varied,” she states, “complex and beautiful. And impactful.”This is why Morrison not only wrote for Black people. She spent her entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze — what she described as “having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it” — did not dominate any of her books. Morrison’s work is therefore reflective of a Black-centered understanding of the world, valuing Black ways of thinking about history, culture, identity, and community.

Although the film, directed by acclaimed photographer/filmmaker Timothy Greenfield Sanders, does an excellent job of centralizing Morrison, the white gaze nonetheless is prevalent.

Contrary to Morrison’s books, the film examines the author’s life and work primarily through the lens of a white readership.

Toni Morrison, who from a young age was an avid reader, was born Chloe Wofford in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio to a working-class family. After high school in 1949, she attended Howard University and majored in English. The literary curriculum at Howard and at Cornell University, where she received an MA in literature in 1955, was exclusively white. Morrison returned to Howard and taught English from 1957 to 1964 and began her career as an editor at Random House in 1965. In the midst of the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements, Morrison bemoaned the absence of Black literature, particularly Black women’s literature. Inspired by a childhood friend’s assertion that God was not real because her prayer for blues eyes had gone unanswered, Morrison published her first novel in 1970, The Bluest Eye, as her first attempt to “write the books I wanted to read.”

While Morrison emphasizes that the role of editor and writer are distinct, the film effectively demonstrates her mastery of both as she not only wrote but also edited books she wanted to read, bringing progressive Black voices such as Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Huey P. Newton, and many others to a wider readership.But the film’s representation of Morrison constructs her as the lone figure who ripped the “whites only” sign off the door of American literature. Yet, such a representation is clearly misleading in that the struggle for literary inclusion was a movement that involved countless Black women. Morrison was not alone when she published her first novel in 1970. The year helps mark the late 20th century Black women’s literary renaissance with several seminal publications including The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Alice Walker, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and The Black Woman by Toni Cade Bambara. The narrowness of the film’s white gaze fails to place Morrison within this larger context of Black women’s literature. Consequently, the celebrated writer is constructed as if she exists in a vacuum.

Yet, as historian Paula Giddings contends, Morrison’s work captures 400 years of Black women’s history in America. “If you don’t know Black women’s history,” she states, “you don’t know American history.”What is most unfortunate about the documentary is Sanders’ choice to end the film’s commentary in 1993, when Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He also chose to focus exclusively on the views of white literary critics. Sanders’ aim becomes clear early in the film when literary scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin quotes an early Morrison critic who stated, “She has a great talent. One day she won’t only limit it to writing about Black people.” Griffin’s comment then sets the stage for the remainder of the film — Morrison’s struggle to gain the approval of white literary elites whose narrow definition of American literature fails to recognize her accomplishments.

In a moment of clarity, the film cites the refusal of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks to sign a petition organized by Black authors in support of Morrison after The National Book Award committee did not award her 1987 novel Beloved the prestigious prize. Brooks contended that Morrison did not need their award and should not have to beg for it.However, the film’s preoccupation with white opinion erases the voices of the Black masses who were Morrison’s intended audience.

No place is the white gaze more prominent than in the discussion of the historical context for Beloved, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988. The novel is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, a fugitive enslaved woman from Kentucky who killed her daughter — and was prepared to kill her entire family — rather than see her or any of her children returned to slavery. Despite the expertise of historian Paula Giddings — and Morrison herself — on the historical meaning of Black women’s experiences during slavery, the commentary on Garner is left to the vague comments of white male scholars who offer no meaningful insight into the psychology of the enslaved, whose decisions often pitted morality against their humanity. When viewing this film, one must keep in mind that it is Sanders’ project. It appears his intent was to celebrate the life and work of a literary icon who spent almost 60 years writing stories that unapologetically proclaimed, “This is what Black people mean to me and still mean to each other,” but the white gaze overshadows Morrison’s message. As Morrison’s friend Nikki Giovanni aptly stated in her poem “Nikki Rosa” — despite the best of intentions, whites will never understand “that Black love is Black wealth.” Indeed, Toni Morrison is an African American treasure whose work has enriched the lives of Black people everywhere.

About the Author

Arica L. Coleman is a historian whose research focuses on comparative ethnic studies and issues of racial formation and identity. Her additional research interests include indigeneity, immigration/migration, interracial relations, mixed race identity, race and gender intersections, sexuality, the politics of race and science, and popular culture. She is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia.